Call them Yippies or punks or anarchists or nihilists, every age suffers those whose life mission is to tear down institutions and violate traditions, willy-nilly. The archetype of the breed was created by Ivan Turgenev in his 1862 novel “Fathers and Sons,” and he comes to the stage with all of his fury intact in George F. Walker’s loose adaptation, aptly entitled “Nothing Sacred.” A hit across Walker’s native Canada and at many regional U.S. venues, it’s now enjoying an elegant and stimulating mounting by South Coast Rep.
On one level, play details a battle for the soul of Arkady Kirsanov (Daniel Blinkoff), who returns from St. Petersburg to find the family farm tottering, the peasants muttering discontent, and his father (Richard Doyle) in blubbering love with a servant (Angela Goethals) who has borne him a son. The lad feels a natural empathy with the folks at home.
But there’s a devil on his shoulder in the person of cynical classmate Bazarov (Eric D. Steinberg), whom Arkady worships as a “force of nature.” (He himself is just “a force of nature in training.”) Contemptuous of all ideals, capricious and bereft of tact, nihilist Bazarov sweeps into the Kirsanov household determined to make mischief while reinforcing Arkady’s role as his chief acolyte.
Steinberg embodies both the insufferable arrogance and dazzling personal charisma that are the stock-in-trade of a would-be leader of a mass cult. Having persuaded a serf (Jeremy Guskin) to abandon petty crime and become a disciple, he embraces the lad in a classic first act curtain line: “One down. One hundred million to go.”
On another level, “Nothing Sacred” enacts in microcosm the ongoing conflict between tradition and radicalism specific to 19th century Russia but relevant to every age. Chief spokesman for the established order is Arkady’s effete uncle Pavel (John Vickery), whose English suits, pomaded hair and pink nail polish bespeak everything that youth must despise on sight.
And ever present is the underclass caught in the crossfire. Guskin and dour butler Hal Landon Jr. generate laughter even as they stand in mute witness to the power struggle that will determine their eventual fate as individuals and as a people.
There’s plenty of philosophical and political argument lifted right out of the novel, enacted with gusto by Steinberg and Vickery in particular.
But in his principal, most audacious break with Turgenev, Walker expands several subplots into a fascinating skein of romantic relationships involving the mysterious aristocrat Anna Odintsov (Khrystyne Haje), Arkady, Bazarov, Pavel and Anna’s late mother. Played out, the various obsessions lift the argument out of the intellectual realm into deeply felt personal drama.
Any play this thoughtful benefits from a staging that’s easy on the eye, and South Coast’s physical production is drop-dead gorgeous. Minimal set pieces glide onto James Youmans and Jerome Martin’s birch-bordered, pastel-painted unit set, instantly evoking time, place and mood with the support of York Kennedy’s subtle lighting effects.
Even the lush costumes advance the dramatic tension, Angela Balogh Calin’s designs so perfectly capturing each character’s social standing that every confrontation between members of different classes begins before either actor has uttered a word.
Play’s many such clashes are deftly orchestrated by director Martin Benson, though toward the end, as the weary characters scatter across the Kirsanov estate and all seem to become introspective simultaneously, Benson cannot keep the energy from flagging and aud from feeling the running time.
Yet Walker has one more chill to send up the spine, as a mortally wounded Bazarov lies back and stares at all of the local peasants he has alternately reviled and lauded at whim. Suddenly he rises up to exclaim, “Yes. I was right. You are the…” At which point he expires.
They are the what? The salt of the earth; the dirt underfoot; the future? Peasant and spectator alike are left to ponder, as every era has pondered, the message of the nihilist, and whether his negative energy must lead to chaos and misery or to the promise of a brighter tomorrow.